A collection of art work preserving visceral images of life in Nazi concentration camps and the uprising of Jews in Warsaw has been donated to Montclair State University.
A wealth of canvasses, murals and drawings from acclaimed artist Israel Bernbaum were given to the university in 2011, and will be on display in an upcoming exhibit. The works of Bernbaum, a Warsaw-born Holocaust survivor who died in 1993, depict the harsh life of Nazi concentration camps and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943.
The preservation of the paintings is “very important to humanity and we are responding to saving and rescuing works that are one of a kind,” said Teresa Rodriguez, director and curator at the George Segal Gallery at Montclair State.
About 6 murals, 18 paintings and several hundred drawings were donated by The Holocaust Resource Center of the Jewish Federation of Greater Clifton/Passaic when it closed its doors 2011. The Jewish federation reached out to Montclair State to handle and preserve the collection.
“We haven’t gone through all of the drawings yet,” said Rodriguez, who is also a professor. “There are a lot of them.”
The brightly colored murals now in the university’s collection were created between 1981 and 1992, after Bernbaum immigrated to the United States, and document the destruction of the ghetto, according to the university. And while Bernbaum did not personally witness the uprising, he bases his work personal research, historical records, first-hand accounts from witnesses and photographs.
Rodriguez said Bernbaum’s works are “aesthetically well accomplished,” but noted that many criticize Bernbaum for what they call a “naive approach” or “cartoon figures.”
However, that was Bernbaum’s goal, said Rodriguez. He wanted to communicate the horrors and pathos of the Holocaust to people of every age, especially children. He also used the paintings as illustrations in a children’s book about the Holocaust, titled “My Brother’s Keeper.”
“The goal of the artist to make this art work understandable by children is a very difficult task for an artist to do,” said Rodriguez. “The themes are very serious and violent, and how you relate that to a child was the challenge.”
Many of the pieces in the collection will need restoration, said Rodriguez, noting that the largest work of art and center piece for the collection, a 12- by 12-foot canvas titled “Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – Resistance & Heroism,” came rolled up.
“There are various levels of need,” said Rodriguez. “The murals are generally in good condition but they need some cleaning. All of the drawings need rescuing. They are in fair to poor condition.”
The university will display all the murals and various other pieces from the collection in an upcoming exhibit titled, "Israel Bernbaum Painting His Story." The exhibit will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and be displayed at the university’s George Segal Gallery from Feb. 26 through April 21.
The university will also feature guest speakers and presentations while the exhibit is running.